Monday, May 12, 2008

Price of privilege

Who wants to live forever?" goes the song. The human psyche has an amazing knack for convincing us that once we accumulate power, we will live forever.

The strange thing is that if we put that theory to the test, we will find that it fails miserably to fulfil its promise. But we continue to pursue this idea even when we know that the road it leads us down takes us through hell and never leads to heaven.

We look at people with privilege as lucky or happy because of our perception that they must be powerful. Powerful enough to get things done, or have things done for them. We envy them and get jealous when we think why them and not us.

Yet when was the last time we truly looked at the lives of the rich and famous to see what kind of a life they lead? Are they genuinely happy or are the trappings of glamour and a lavish life just a facade to a rather unfulfilled life full of pain and anguish?

The reality is usually somewhere in between. So what exactly are we jealous of or envious about?

The truth is that our envy stems from our perceptions rather than the reality (though there are those that say that perception is reality).

Take for example any rock star or football player's life. When we see the obnoxious amount of money they spend on trinkets and add to that the times these people have been taken for fools by others, you soon see that it is their human vulnerabilities that stand out.

They start to question whether people like them for themselves or because of their money and power. They get anxious and become easily agitated when things don't go their way. Yet they pursue this lifestyle despite not knowing where it will eventually lead them.

Let's talk about the average Joe who becomes, by some stroke of luck, rich and famous. A constant with almost all people who have accumulated a significant amount of wealth is that they need to ensure that everyone around them knows it.

Throughout history we can see examples of the wealthy flaunting their good fortune. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European merchants who amassed great wealth would go out of his or her way to buy a title: In their minds that was the title of accomplishment that they needed to prove that were indeed the cream of society.

Their wealth was not enough if they had no title to go with it.

This scene is being played out again in our time and here in the Gulf. Those who have made significant financial gains in the last few years are going out of their way to be seen as part of the elite clique.

A perfect example is the spending of millions of dirhams on so-called exclusive license plate numbers that appeal only to the vanity of the buyer.

Worse still are the sons and daughters of the merchant families who feel that they too must throw money about to get respect of their peers, rather than earn it through intelligent hard work and contributing something positive to the world.

How many times have we seen people who have accomplished nothing being lauded by the press just for throwing money at lifeless objects?

Once again, need I mention how much money has been spent on license plates just so that people can show how rich they are? These same people say it is for charity yet our religion specifically forbids such acts because they smack of hypocrisy.

If charity was their aim, they could have just as easily given away the money to their charity of choice anonymously. But they choose to give away money publicly, not because they are generous, either because they want society to talk about them or to ensure someone more important pays them some attention.

We have an Arabic saying that advises, "be different and you will be noticed."

So the next time you see a rich, powerful person don't be jealous or envious. Because while you can pop to the store, he cannot, believing himself to be above common acts or irrationally fearful of his life.

He is a prisoner of his social position. That is the price of privilege.

Mishal Kanoo is the deputy chairman of Kanoo Group.

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